Executive leadership demands have evolved. Growth in the global business environment has prompted many organizations to reinvent themselves to meet the enlarged scale and scope. This places a spotlight on how leaders are developed. The modern leadership profile requires a complex yet malleable skill set.
Fifty-one percent of senior learning and leadership development executives view strategic planning as a top leadership skill to target, according to a November survey by Chief Learning Officer and Human Capital Media (HCM) Advisory Group, the magazine’s research arm. Business acumen, coaching, critical thinking, mentorship and situational leadership were among the most sought-after traits required of today’s business leaders, the survey said.
Developing great global leaders has gone beyond simply cultivating certain skills, however. In many ways, as leadership development as a learning discipline has become well defined, the valued skills it seeks to teach have grown more muddled. As a result, developing a fresh mindset or framework within which to evaluate and lead business is just as important as specific skills.
Effective corporate leadership traits are often hard to define, but many learning leaders say they know a true leader when they see one.
“Leaders are those with followers,” said Maril MacDonald, CEO of Gagen MacDonald, a Chicago-based leadership development consultancy. “Leadership is granted; it’s not actually an authoritarian position. Nor is it a title.”
That subjectivity makes leadership harder to teach, but organizations that create a leadership development-friendly culture will end up with a robust pipeline of leaders with complex capabilities. That culture will include foundational programs that welcome experiential learning and align with the greater business strategy.
New Skills: Don’t Command, Lead
In 1956, General Electric Co. launched what is now called the John F. Welch Leadership Development Center in Crotonville, N.Y. The 53-acre campus, designed to equip GE’s employees with real-world leadership skills, is still viewed as an epicenter for corporate leadership development. The campus remains largely unchanged, but the skills and character traits developed there are constantly shifting.
For instance, globalization has forced GE’s leaders to think and manage in multiple layers, making critical thinking a top skill. They must have an acute sense of how these complex layers relate, and be able to assimilate business strategies across cultures. That is the framework in which executive leadership — across all global organizations — now operates.
“The information age has changed the world of leaders,” said Jeff Barnes, senior manager of global learning at GE. “Information is so quick. You don’t have time to really stop and think about it … your job [as a leader] has gotten so much more complicated.”
Once viewed as an afterthought, the ability to create a communication strategy across multiple mediums has moved to the forefront, said Paul Argenti, professor of management and corporate communication and faculty director of executive education at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.
Global businesses increasingly fixate on strategy, so the ability to understand how to best present a clear and tactful message to internal teams and external stakeholders across continents is a necessary competency. Forty-seven percent of executives surveyed by Chief Learning Officer and HCM Advisory Group ranked communication among the top targeted leadership skills.
“That ability to execute strategy through communication is one of the most important skills that leaders need today,” Argenti said.
The sheer abundance of information, however, has forced leaders to rely on others. A shift from traditional command-and-control cultures to a leadership model based on trust, teamwork and the free flow of ideas is necessary to survive. Leaders with the ability to influence an organization and promote an environment where new ideas from across the enterprise are not only welcomed but demanded will succeed.
“There is a need more than ever for fresh thinking and new ideas,” said Kurt Metzger, vice president and consultant for Prudential Financial, where he is also responsible for the firm’s management and leadership development curriculum. “That’s going to come from many places and not just from a select few.”
The evolving demands of the multigenerational workforce compound the need for leaders to be more cognizant of and fully embrace the value of teaming and collaboration. “People are coming into the workforce that not only want but expect to contribute faster and in a substantial way,” Metzger said.
Diane Gherson, vice president of talent at IBM, said the company’s leadership development efforts aim to force leaders to expand their way of thinking, tap capabilities from around the globe and collaborate to get things done instead of the former “ruling of the roost” approach.
“Now you’ve got to work with huge amounts of ambiguity, help other people do that too, and manage risk,” she said. “You’re always trying new things, pushing the edge of the envelope — and you have to enable your teams to experience and also let them fail. That’s a whole set of leadership capability that we really didn’t have a huge dose of to start with.”
Leading with transparency requires that leaders and managers push themselves to think outside their comfort zones and embrace diverse opinions. This mindset requires that leaders envision teams and organizations as networks instead of hierarchies.
“For senior players who’ve worked inside formal hierarchies their whole lives, you’re now teaching them to operate in networks [and] across boundaries where they don’t have formal authority, but they are influencing to get things to happen,” Gherson said.
Leaders Teaching Leaders
Developing modern leadership traits is a tall challenge. Many of these skills cannot be cultivated exclusively in a lecture hall. Experiential learning on the job is often where the real development takes place.
IBM has created an award-winning experiential framework for developing leaders — Fortune magazine ranked IBM the top company in global leadership development two years in a row — and much of its success grooming its leaders stems from its Corporate Service Corps program, which sends high-potential employees to emerging markets across the globe. Groups of 10 to 15 high potentials with varying backgrounds go to an emerging market for a four-week, community-based assignment.
“We’ve had about 1,400 of our employees go through this now,” Gherson said of the program. “They go through different countries and they take on really big challenges that those countries have — whether it’s working with nonprofits or government organizations; sometimes entrepreneurs, helping them get their business going — and it’s very competitive to get in. People are very excited to do it.”
Since its launch in 2008, IBM’s Corporate Service Corps has sent more than 100 teams to more than 20 countries, including Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, China, Egypt, Ghana, India and Indonesia.
“It’s a fantastic training ground for leadership development,” Gherson said. “Because they have to sharpen their leadership and collaboration skills … to work in these different cultures.”
Putting leaders in unfamiliar territory forces them to discern new methods of doing business and work extensively in networks or teams in erratic and often inconsistent circumstances, Gherson said.
But these kinds of full-throttle, global experiential development methods require a foundation. Further, these programs are only successful if the company knows which potential leaders will fit best. This puts an even greater emphasis on an organization’s hiring and talent selection process at home, said Doug Lynch, vice dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania and creator of its doctoral program for learning executives.
“If you’re really screening for leaders and you’re being really thoughtful in how you’re identifying these folks … you’re way ahead of your competitors already,” he said.
Part of this foundation building begins in the classroom, but the teaching that takes place is much more collaborative and multidimensional. Part of Lynch’s program at the University of Pennsylvania requires students to build their own leadership simulations, as if they are a teacher preparing to share it as an exercise in a leadership training course.
Building the scenario themselves forces leaders to deconstruct the process and think about their own decision making. Lynch said leadership curriculum design has grown more vital as leadership has become a more complex discipline, and having potential leaders think within each layer creates a launching pad for the real learning that is likely to take place on the job.
“The simulation is simply the experience,” Lynch said. “It’s the framing beforehand and the debriefing afterwards that really facilitates the learning.”
Design or learning delivery method aside, any leadership development methodology will fall flat if organizations don’t enable leaders to interpret and absorb what’s important. “Leaders are on such a treadmill that it’s very difficult for them to really stop and reflect and think,” said MacDonald, of Gagen MacDonald. “Because someone’s head is spinning through the whole experience, nothing really sticks.”
To ensure leaders have an opportunity to interpret new information contextually, it’s often beneficial to have leaders teach and groom other leaders. Like Lynch’s reverse simulation assignments, having company executives and managers teach courses in executive education forces them to build their own means to learn. This method has become popular in organizations that have their own leadership development education centers.
“They’ve got to develop the curriculum themselves,” said Norm Bartlett, vice president of leadership talent management at Chicago-based Boeing Co., whose 204-room leadership development complex sits just north of St. Louis. “It makes them creative.”
Boeing, which also has a global experiential program similar to IBM’s, takes this concept a step further — it holds sessions where lower-level employees communicate and voice experiences to senior executives. These special leadership sessions, called Leaders Listening to Leaders, help senior leaders develop better courses and enhance their understanding of different leadership needs and issues within the company, Bartlett said.
In the end, however, successful leadership development methodologies require leaders to foster talent. In addition to Lynch’s simulation assignment and Boeing’s leaders teaching leaders focus, both insist the top ranks learn another important leadership skill: How to recognize potential and train others to lead.
“We want our leaders to be obsessed with talent,” said Prudential’s Metzger, who likened the concept to thinking like the general manager of a professional sports team. “We want them thinking about the depth chart — who’s going to be next in this role or that role [and] how can we develop this person to use their talents that much better.”